Studies about behavior disorders in animals can give scientists insight into the management of similar conditions in people. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a debilitating mental illness that affects up to 3% of the human population. It can also affect our dogs and cats, and can be very difficult for their pet parents.
The behaviors associated with OCD are based on normal behaviors such as grooming and feeding, but they are taken to the extreme. Scientists believe that there are three underlying causes: genetics, an anxious temperament and environmental stress. One of the most common OCD behaviors in dogs is excessive grooming. Acral lick dermatitis occurs when a dog licks their skin excessively, leaving it raw and hairless. With this condition, it is essential to rule out medical causes of licking such as pain or allergy. Genetics appear to play a role in true OCD-related licking behavior. Flank sucking is another obsessive behavior that is quite common in the Doberman Pinscher. A study found that changes in the brain of affected Dobermans were very similar to those found in human OCD patients. Scientists have identified a single gene that may be responsible for this behavior.
For many years, tail chasing in Bull Terriers was thought to be an OCD-type behavior. In one study of a large number of affected dogs, it was found that they were withdrawn and obsessed with objects. Two specific hormones were elevated in tail-chasing Bull Terriers, and they are also known to be increased in autistic children. This suggests that tail chasing is more similar to autism than OCD. On the other hand, there are also indications that a specific gene is associated with tail chasing in the Belgian Shepherd.
Cats don’t escape the scourge of this condition. The two most common compulsive behaviors in cats are wool sucking and pulling out their hair. Both are more common in Oriental cat breeds and it has been shown to be hereditary.
Pet parents need to have time and commitment to treat compulsive behaviors in their pets. There are three main approaches to management.
First, any underlying stressors need to be identified and removed. It’s not always easy to identify stress in felines, so pet parents need to be watchful. Routine is very important to these pets as the predictability of their day is a means of reducing anxiety. They should have a quiet den to rest in when they need some time away from the rest of the household.
Second, environmental enrichment is essential, such as increased exercise, mental stimulation with obedience and trick training, and food dispensing toys. Third, anti-anxiety medication is the mainstay of treatment. A group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are the first choice for veterinary behaviorists. These increase the amount of serotonin in the brain that results in feelings of well-being and happiness.
Obsessive-compulsive disorders in pets are challenging to manage. The similarities between the disease in pets and people mean that if the underlying causes can be identified in both species, it can lead to new and better treatments. In particular, the genetic basis for many compulsive behaviors may in the future lead to a genetic test that might identify those at risk of developing the condition.